According to Eric Foner, why did the United States become locked in a Cold War with the Soviet Union, and how did Cold War ideology shape America’s foreign policy and culture in the 1950s?

According to Foner, the United States became locked in a Cold War with the Soviet Union because President Truman was convinced that the spread of communism needed to be contained. The Cold War was also inevitable because the former war-time allies had diametrically opposed values and objectives. Cold War ideology became so important in the 1950s that it was the main factor in shaping American foreign policy and culture.

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In the chapter of Give Me Liberty! devoted to the start of the Cold War, Foner argues that it was “all but inevitable” that the former wartime allies, the United States and the Soviet Union, would come into conflict.

The alliance that the two superpowers had formed against Nazi Germany was little more than a marriage of convenience, entered into in order to defeat a common enemy. But once Hitler had been defeated and World War II was over, there was no longer any reason why these two great ideological foes should have anything other than an antagonistic relationship with one another.

Even so, America's becoming locked in a Cold War with the USSR arose from a conscious decision made by President Truman. As Foner tells it, Truman came to believe that Stalin could not be trusted, and that as Great Britain was no longer able to fulfill a position of global leadership due to her shattered economy, the United States needed to step into the breach.

The global strategy that came to define American policy towards the Soviet Union was containment, the notion that the spread of Communism needed to be contained wherever and whenever possible.

Throughout the Cold War, successive American governments would use a variety of different approaches to hold back the advance of the Communist threat, from backing unsavory right-wing regimes to offering packages of massive economic support, most notably the Marshall Plan.

Although there was an obvious ideological component to containment, it was also a practical policy in that it was based on the recognition that direct armed confrontation between two nuclear superpowers was out of the question as it could easily lead to Armageddon.

By the 1950s, Cold War ideology formed the bedrock of American foreign policy and culture. As Foner points out, critics of Truman's foreign policy believed this to be a mistake. They argued that it was wrong to cast foreign policy in terms of an ideological crusade. Not every foreign policy issue could be framed in terms of an eternal battle between the forces of freedom and slavery, democracy and tyranny, light and darkness.

But such critics were generally voices crying out in the wilderness. Cold War ideology had taken such a firm grip on American foreign policy and culture that few were brave enough to speak out and challenge it. To do so would be to invite charges of un-Americanism or even sympathy with Communism, an allegation that, in most cases, would be enough to end careers.

Cold War ideology even manifested itself in the arts, with the CIA opening a cultural front in the Cold War through the funding of museums and exhibitions, and also through the promotion of American artists such as Jackson Pollock. As Foner points out, the primary purpose of such funding—which, incidentally, was top secret—was

to counteract the widespread European view of the United States as a cultural backwater.

In its unlikely role as patron of the arts, the CIA also wanted to show the world that the United States was a haven of freedom, that American artists enjoyed a freedom of expression that simply didn't exist in the Soviet Union, where artists were told by the government what kind of works they could or couldn't produce.

Somewhat ironically, the CIA was using avant-garde schools of art like abstract expressionism as a tool of propaganda at the same time that American culture was showing signs of greater conformity due to the constricting nature of Cold War ideology.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
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